Matt Drudge is coming to Washington--and plenty of other cities--over the heated objections of ABC News President David Westin.
ABC Radio said yesterday that it has signed the Internet gossip columnist to a syndication deal that will put him on the network-owned stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, where Drudge will be heard on WMAL-AM. Drudge, whose Sunday night show is already carried on New York's WABC, is getting a bigger major-market rollout than Rush Limbaugh.
According to network sources, Westin vociferously argued that Drudge should not be part of ABC's corporate family. In meetings with Pat Fili-Krushel, the president of ABC Television, and Lyn Andrews, the head of ABC Radio Networks, Westin contended that Drudge was reckless and that the radio division would be sorry if it hired him. Fili-Krushel, in turn, raised the matter with Steven Bornstein, president of ABC Inc.
The sources said Westin also noted that Drudge had been sued, a reference to the $30 million defamation lawsuit filed by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal after Drudge falsely accused him of spousal abuse.
Drudge's signing was delayed more than a week by Westin's lobbying campaign. But the radio unit, which operates separately from the news division, prevailed.
Drudge brushed off the criticism by Westin, who declined to be interviewed. "It doesn't bother me at all," he said from Los Angeles, where he will often do the show. "Hopefully one day I can become an apple of his eye like George Stephanopoulos and anchor the news." The former White House aide recently filled in as co-host of ABC's "World News Now" overnight news show.
Geoff Rich, executive vice president of ABC Radio Today Entertainment, said Drudge is "a dynamite radio personality" and that the show "wouldn't be on the air if it didn't have a great breadth of support within ABC. I can't speak for the news executives."
As for Drudge's controversial record, Rich noted that ABC long carried famed gossip-meister Walter Winchell on Sunday nights. "I expect him to be a responsible broadcaster," Rich said. "Are there things talk show hosts have said that later turned out not to be true? That's happened with every talk show out there--and it's happened with every news organization out there."
Phil Boyce, program director at WABC, said he was "not too worried" about Westin's opposition. "It's not a news show, it's a talk show," Boyce said. "After he's done this for a while, our friends at ABC News will come on board."
Drudge became a media star after he was the first to report on Monica Lewinsky's affair with President Clinton. He now has an America Online site, a Saturday show on Fox News Channel and the online Drudge Report, which recorded more than 20 million hits in the last month. Drudge remains a lightning rod; he was widely criticized for reporting on a supermarket tabloid's efforts to compare the DNA of an Arkansas youth with that of the president. The tests came back negative after a spate of "Clinton love child" stories.
Drudge often beats up on the establishment media and recently criticized ABC for appearing to tout its ratings success in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., high school shootings. But, he said, "there's safety in working for different organizations. They can always throw me back to the Internet if they have to."
ABC has given Drudge a six-figure deal and a share of future advertising revenues. While he'll debut Sundays on about 20 stations, Rich said he hopes to eventually air the program five days a week. In the latest ratings period, Drudge boosted his New York audience by 80 percent and beat everyone else on both AM and FM--a feat that Rich says is accomplished only by the likes of Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger.
John Butler, WMAL's program director, said the 10 p.m. show is a natural for Washington. "I think he'll do well," Butler said. "Drudge manages to find stories bubbling in all kinds of places before they hit more mainstream places."
CAPTION: ABC News President David Westin, right, failed to deter a deal with Drudge.
CAPTION: Matt Drudge: Following in Walter Winchell's footsteps on ABC radio.